School Is a Right, but Will Indian Girls Be Able to Go?

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Mukesh Gupta / Reuters

Students attend a government-run school on the outskirts of Jammu on April 3, 2010

The day the Indian government made education a fundamental right for 192 million children, Dimple Yadav, 11, woke up at 4:30 in the morning. Eyes heavy with sleep, she cleaned her house (in a village about 24 miles outside the capital), made tea and got busy preparing food for her family. After her parents, who work as laborers in Delhi, left at 6 a.m., Dimple fed and clothed her 5- and 7-year-old siblings and made her way to the local school with them in tow. By the time she took her seat in class, she relaxed for the first time since waking up, and was soon lulled into drowsiness, missing most of the day's lessons. "I like school," she said later. "But I do not know how long I will study. My mother has been saying that she needs me to be home so that someone can look after my brother and sister."

For Dimple, April 1, the day when the Right to Education Act (RTE) came into being to mandate free and compulsory education for all Indian children between the ages of 6 and 14, has no significance. She may read about it in high school — if she can continue her education till then. But in all probability she will drop out of school soon, adding another number to the 50% of young girls who have done the same across India, for as simple a reason as having to take care of siblings. The RTE does not protect children from being taken out of school for agricultural work or housework, nor do laws against child labor consider housework or agricultural work to be child labor.

The RTE is ambitious, to say the least. In the next five years, the government aims to provide free and compulsory education to millions of children, build new, accessible schools, improve infrastructure, train existing teachers and recruit new ones. The biggest challenges will be bringing in the whopping 10 million children who are out of school already and filling the shortage of trained teachers. But infrastructural gaps are part of the problem too. Forty-six percent of public schools do not have toilets for girls; it's one reason parents are reluctant to send their daughters to class. The Prime Minister himself admitted that passing a law was by no means the end of the road: "To think that we have passed a law and all children will get educated is not right," said Manmohan Singh. "What we have done is prepare a framework to get quality education. It is for the entire community to contribute and participate in this national endeavor."

But many have questioned how the law will address the widespread problem of young girls dropping out to help at home. Children across India are being put to work at the cost of their education, but girls like Dimple have the additional burden of being caregivers in households with working parents. A 1996 International Labor Organization report said 33 million girls ages 10-14 worldwide were working, as opposed to 41 million boys, but that figure did not take into account the full-time housework that girls undertake at home. According to a National Commission for Protection of Children's Rights (NCPCR) report, in India, girls ages 6-14 spend an average of nearly eight hours a day caring for other children in the family. Government statistics show that while about 25% of girls drop out of school between the ages of 6 and 10, that rate doubles to more than 50% for girls ages 10-13. "There are girls in this school as young as 7 or 8 who work like slaves at home," says Neeta Goswami, Dimple's teacher in the Wajidpur Government school. "I cannot blame them for falling asleep in the class. I see so many of them with so much promise, but it all ends with dropping out before finishing primary school."

In a 2008 government survey, 42% of girls said the reason they dropped out of school was that they had been told to quit by their parents, in order to look after the house and siblings. "In India, the challenge of keeping girls from dropping out is even bigger than that of enrolling them in schools," says Yogita Verma, director of India's Child Rights and You. "If the act is properly implemented and every neighborhood has a school, enrollment rates for girls may rise. However, the effect of this might get wiped out by an equally high dropout rate. Girls are kept at home to take care of younger siblings, a direct fallout of no [government nurseries] near homes."

But NCPCR chairperson Shanta Sinha believes that housework and poverty are excuses that Indian parents have long used to keep girls away from school. "What keeps children out of school is not poverty or household chores but the right atmosphere that will aid in learning, like a proper teacher-to-student ratio, qualified teachers and so on. And the RTE guarantees all that," Sinha says.

A key provision in the RTE is that schools with more than 150 students should have at least five teachers as well as a head teacher. While Dimple sleeps undisturbed, Goswami — the only qualified instructor at a primary school of 164 students — is more busy disciplining the children than teaching them. Goswami has only two teachers to help her, both of whom are not formally trained. She fervently hopes that the law will help the grossly lopsided teacher-student ratio. "I often have to combine two or three classes together. In the present system, we can look after the children but not educate them," says Goswami.

At 10:30 a.m., the bell rings for the government-subsidized midday meal, a popular scheme that has helped attract children to schools since it was introduced nationally in 1995. The children come running helter-skelter from all over the school to eat the hot food served on leaf plates. While the children gobble up their daal-chawal (lentils and rice), a sulky girl named Manju approaches Goswami. Manju has been absent from school the past three days because her mother insisted she stay home and look after the house and their cattle while she was busy with the cucumber harvest. When Goswami requests that Manju tell her mother she needs to be in school, Manju looks downcast and mumbles, "She will beat me." Goswami looks on in exasperation and says, "The law can bring them to school, but how do we keep them here, especially the girls?"

The new law has rightfully gathered much praise for the Indian government. After all, with the legislation, India joins a select list of about 130 countries that provide education as a fundamental right. The law provides a wide framework that, with certain amendments, could prove to be beneficial for Indian children. The challenge lies in bolstering it with policies that will create a conducive atmosphere for all Indian children to claim and exercise their right. For Dimple and Manju, that means designating household chores and agricultural work as child labor, so that no child in India should work — whether at home, for the family or outside. Until that happens, the RTE will remain a policy triumph for the Indian government, and girls like Dimple will remain just a statistic — sometimes for enrolling, but more often than not, for dropping out.